Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, April 28, 2014

29 April 1916: British Imperial Forces Surrender at Kut

Contributed by Matt Church

Anglo-Indian forces surrendered at Kut in modern-day Iraq on 29 April 1916, bringing to an end a calamitous campaign to take Baghdad. British forces landed in Basra in 1914 as a military demonstration. Protecting British commerce, securing Persian Gulf oil, and projecting British influence were the original goals of this demonstration, but the situation changed drastically in the coming months (Church, 2005). In April 1915, Sir John Nixon took command of British forces in Iraq and received orders to draw up plans for an advance on Baghdad. Nixon interpreted this as an order to advance on Baghdad and ordered forces under Major General Townshend to advance. Anglo-Indian forces seized Amara, Nasiriya, and Kut by 29 September 1915. With Persian Gulf oil supplies secure and a foothold in Mesopotamia established, the opportunity to capture Baghdad still loomed large. Mesopotamia was the third focus of British Middle Eastern Operations behind the Suez Canal and Gallipoli. With stalemates at the latter two, it is presumable that British leaders were searching for a morale-boosting victory in the region. The Home Government, Indian Government, and military authorities wrangled over whether or not Baghdad should be taken, and ultimately Austen Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India, approved an advance on Baghdad. Officials decided Baghdad could be taken if it could be held, and this decision doomed British forces in Mesopotamia.

Turkish Trenches Cutting Off Kut

Upon receiving approval, Nixon ordered Townshend's forces to advance on Baghdad. British military intelligence believed the nearest Ottoman forces to be between 350 and 400 miles away. The Ottomans managed to pull together enough reinforcements to send troops to confront the British advance. British forces met the Ottoman advance guard at Ctesiphon in November of 1915. The resulting battle inflicted enough damage upon British forces to convince Townshend to order a retreat. Townshend believed his forces to be overextended and ordered a retreat to Kut, where they entrenched themselves near the Tigris River to await reinforcements. British forces had two months of supplies but were confronted by Ottoman forces that were masters of siege warfare. Ottoman forces encircled the British positions with earthworks and laid siege to Townshend's forces. Between January and March 1916, four attempts to break Ottoman lines by Townshend's forces and a relief force were repelled. The last attempt known as the battle of the Dujaila Redoubt left a thousands combatants dead. After this setback, annual floods stemming from melted snow from Zagros Mountains swelled the rivers, The resulting floods cut Kut off completely from reinforcements. Surrounded by floodwaters and Ottoman forces, Townshend's forces surrendered. Townshend and 10,000 survivors went into captivity. Captivity was harsh, and 4,000 soldiers died in enemy hands. Kut was retaken in late 1916 when a British force of 200,000 overran 10,000 Ottomans.

General Townshend in Custody After His Surrender

Historian Briton Cooper Busch summarized the campaign by stating "a demonstration had become an invasion, a successful advance had become a humiliating setback." Like Salonika, a British campaign against a seemingly inferior force resulted in a stalemate and drained resources. Worse yet, the British forces were humiliated and humbled by an enemy that was supposed to be no closer than 350 miles. British prisoners endured brutal treatment in captivity and only 6,000 of 10,000 survived. All of this was due to indecision over whether or not to take Baghdad and the lack of satisfaction with the initial objectives. The capture of Baghdad would do nothing to turn the tide in the Middle East — that would happen in Palestine and Greater Syria. Baghdad served only to bring about significant loss. 


  1. How is Charles Townshend's Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia?

  2. Excellent summary of this activity! Most interesting insights: 1) Campaign motivated by search "for a morale-boosting victory" rather than strategic military need, 2) Extremely bad intelligence, 3) Serious underestimation of the enemy, in terms of ability to move rapidly and mount and sustain a siege, 4) No surprise, thousands of ordinary soldiers paid for these management mistakes with their lives. Still kind of a Zulu Wars mentality in 1916.

  3. It's worth noting that 80% of Townshend's force were Indian or Gurkha. And while Townshend got a ride in an automobile, most of his troops were force-marched over 500 miles to Aleppo.